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Short Film, Big Ideas: Combining 2D and 3D to Visualize a Complex Issue

For his latest film, Disorder, director Robert Grieves utilized a multi-media approach to tell a multi-dimensional story. Here’s how he did it.

In his first multi-award-winning film, Sausage,  UK-based animator/director Robert Grieves used humor to cleverly examine the ethics of food. His latest release, Disorder, explores the relationship between humans and climate change. It’s the first part of a trilogy made in collaboration with Paras Chopra, founder of Wingify Earth, and Sydney, Australia-based motion studio Substance.

Disorder aims to inspire thoughtful discussion and debate about humanity’s relationship with the environment. The three-minute film artfully combines 2D and 3D, and was made using Cinema 4D, After Effects, Photoshop, and Redshift.

Combining 2D with 3D

This short film aims to explore humanity’s fragile relationship with the environment. Image via Robert Grieves.

The project began when Chopra — a tech entrepreneur who founded Wingify Earth to help raise awareness about the danger of climate change — contacted Grieves to discuss bringing some of his writing about climate issues to life. Grieves quickly came up with a way to mix 2D and 3D, to get a look they both liked. But, he wasn’t sure how he was going to pull it off, until he brought Substance founder Scott Geersen on board.

We asked Grieves and Geersen to share the ins and outs of creating Disorder, as well as discuss how their mixed-media approach to storytelling took shape. The production involved traditional illustration, cel animation, and 3D with Redshift, and, as you’ll see, it was an interesting — and worthwhile — challenge for both of them.

PremiumBeat: Robert, how did Paras Chopra find out about you and your work?

Robert Grieves: He sent me an email saying he found me on Google and liked my films. His appreciation of my animation just opened the door, and it was the way we discussed the themes and potential of the project that brought us both to the table.

PB: You had a lot of big ideas to visualize. Walk us through your concepting process.

RG: This was the most involved storyboarding process I’ve ever done. But, it was the perfect chance to be brave with my ideas because the script was so unique, and I had a rare degree of creative freedom. As the client, Paras had never commissioned anything like this before, so every stage of this process was new.

Seeing the boards really blew his mind. We nailed three quarters of the film in the first pass of the boards, but the final fourth was a real challenge. I think anytime you reduce complex intellectual theories into simple visual metaphors, certain ideas are going to take more attempts to get right.



The progression of storyboards from 2D to a mix of both 2D and 3D. Images via Robert Grieves.

PB: Did you know you wanted to mix 2D and 3D from the start?

RG: I storyboarded the film with no look in mind. That is so rare because, normally, you would have agreed on a style during the pitch. But, this project didn’t work that way. We agreed on a visual narrative, and all of the aesthetics I explored kept leading back to photo-real 3D — certain scenes just demanded it.

I toyed with editing fully 3D scenes against fully 2D scenes, and even working with various artists. But, then, I mixed the different approaches in the same scene, and that immediately excited me. I also liked that the overall effect was more powerful when the 2D and 3D looked very different.

Mixed Approaches

Placing photo-real 3D on a 2-dimensional background created a powerful visual effect. Image via Robert Grieves.

PB: Scott, what made you want to get involved?

Scott Geersen: A few things, starting with the subject matter. Disorder has heart and a message we believe in, and it’s very much in line with some of Substance’s previous work. We’re interested in how we can use the moving image to spark conversations and connect brands to people, or vice versa. We also believe in the power of design for good, and we look for opportunities to use the moving image to create positive social impact.

We knew we’d collaborate well with Robert, whom I’d met some time back at a gathering of Sydney-based designers and studio owners. Also, the style he proposed really interested us because Substance had never undertaken something like that before.

PB: Describe your process for combining 2D and 3D for the film.

RG: The freedom to supply Scott with sketched animatics, to which he matched the 3D moves, was thrilling to me. The process required a lot of planning, but because Scott’s so experienced, he could smooth over many of the gaps in my thinking.

SG: The process ended up being relatively straightforward. Our skill sets overlap somewhat, so communication was easy. That was the most important part.

With clear communication of story and intent, we were able to match the 3D layout and animation with the 2D animatics as backplates in C4D. Then, we passed back 3D renders so the 2D could be further refined on top, with supplied mattes and other passes for interaction. It was a multi-step process, but it always felt very smooth.

Multi-Step Process

Multi-Step Process

This multi-step process involved matching the 3D layout and animation with the 2D animatics as backplates in C4D. Images via Robert Grieves.

PB: Scott, tell us more about how you used C4D, After Effects, and Redshift.

SG: Cinema 4D already has a degree of integration with After Effects and an increasingly tighter integration with Redshift, following Maxon’s acquisition. So, it was an easy choice to combine the three of them.

Three-dimensional cameras and helper objects could be exported from C4D to After Effects with some scripts and a click. Whether it was simple reference objects to help outline the 3D space in After Effects, or parent objects to attach the 2D plates to the motion of the 3D objects, the tools existed to make this completely painless.

Cinema 4D and Redshift gave us the combination of stability and speed that we needed while editing the volume of material we had, which was hugely important for completing this on schedule. The project actually contains a relatively small amount of keyframing, and a lot more dynamics and mo-graph than you may think. Redshift let us iterate quickly, and when it came to rendering, we were able to obtain a high level of realism for mere seconds per frame, including mattes and a range of lighting and shadow passes.


With a range of lighting and shadow passes, the high level of realism captured only reinforced the dynamics of its message. Image via Robert Grieves.

PB: When will the next two parts of the trilogy be released?

RG: The next two parts of The Discourse Trilogy are Dispute and Dispel. All of them tackle climate change in very different ways. We produced Disorder and Dispel alongside each other, even though they look quite different. Dispute is still in production.

PB: What else would you like to say about the films or your process?

SG: Disorder is particularly timely, given the worldwide shutdowns we’re all experiencing due to COVID-19. But, it also highlights some strengths about the process for motion and animation, at this time.

Substance has been perfecting the art of global remote collaboration with our own teams for some years now, and collaboration with Robert on Disorder was no different. The entire film was built via phone calls, Slack conversations, and file sharing. There was zero in-person contact.

With many live-action productions shut down, brands can turn to animation and CG to provide continuity of message — especially messages of support — through uncertain times. This means safety is never compromised, as motion design is particularly suited to the remote workflows now demanded by social distancing and coronavirus quarantine.

Working in Isolation

Working with animation and CG is perfectly suited when working in isolation. Image via Robert Grieves.

PB: Now that the film is out online, how do you plan to attract an audience?

RG: We had planned to apply to a lot of film festivals, but that circuit’s now in disarray due to COVID-19. Excitingly, though, we’ve just been selected by Annecy, the world’s top animation event, to compete for Best Commissioned Film.

Fortunately, Annecy is one of the events that is migrating online. It’s been going for sixty years, so not only is it a showcase for world-class animation, it’s the animation industry’s global gathering. It’ll be fascinating to see how their online event unfolds.

As for the next two films in the trilogy, with the pandemic being the world’s focus right now, we’re looking for the right moment to put our environmental messages out there. Although the fight for the planet never ends, timing plays an important role. But, after seeing the passionate response to Disorder, we certainly plan to build our audience for the next ones.

Cover image via Robert Grieves.